E.B. Cook, A Colourful American Fancy Skating Pioneer

Photo courtesy Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University

"Years ago when the Central Park Lake (New York City) had frozen over and opened to skaters for the first time, Plimpton met on skates Eugene Beauharnais Cook (of Hoboken, NJ) who was the founder, the creator of American 'Fancy Skating.'...Plimpton was an inventor.... He had worked too hard and on the advice of his physician took to outdoor exercise. He could not hold up on his one-bladed skates and envied E.B. Cook who flew about like a bird. They became friends on the ice and Cook laughingly suggested that he ought to invent a skate on which he could hold up at once. It chanced to be a long winter and before its close Plimpton followed Cook's advice and used four small blades similar to miniature old-fashioned country sleighs. The principle was exactly the same as the one used for roller-skates: the four blades always remained flat on the ice whilst diverging and converging." - Excerpt from letter from George E. Vail to Edgar Syers, 1898

The son of Martha (Walker) and General William Cook, Eugene Beauharnais 'E.B.' Cook was born May 19, 1830, in Manhattan, New York. To say that his family was well-to-do was something of an understatement. His father, a West Point graduate, was a decorated military man and personal friend of U.S. President Martin Van Buren. His mother was an accomplished editor who translated a biography of legendary Polish composer Frédéric Chopin. With no less than six servants at their beck and call in the family home in Bordentown, New Jersey, Cook, his older sister Celia and younger sister Edith lived a life of uncommon privilege.

Educated in his youth by private tutors, Cook was shipped off to Princeton College when he was only sixteen. Smart as a whip, he was soon ranked first in his class in civil engineering. Studious almost to a fault, he spent his vacations from school with his nose buried in one book or another. It all caught up to him quickly. According to a biographical sketch penned by W.R. Henry that appeared in "American Chess Magazine" in February 1898, "Hard study and over-application induced tension of the brain, and so much deranged his nervous system that while in the second term of the Junior Class, he became completely prostrated, and was compelled to leave college, without hope of ever being able to resume his studies. He was for a long time dangerously ill, and remained for several years an invalid."


While convalescing, Cook developed something of an obsession for the development and solution of chess problems and by the time he was in his early twenties, the first of many of these problems was published in "The Albion". When his health improved, Cook took to the great outdoors in pursuit of fresh air and better health. In the summers, he pursued mountaineering with the same vigour that he'd shown to chess. In a letter penned to F.M. Teed, he claimed, "In summer I climbed mountains. I have ascended more than 230 mountains and lofty eminences." He became so entranced by his new hobby that he took up annually took up summer residence at Ravine House in Randolph just to be close to the White Mountains and became quite involved in trail-making.


In the winters, Cook left Hoboken and took up residence wherever skating conditions were the best. In an interview that appeared in the March 20, 1903 issue of "The Sun", he claimed, "It was on a King's pond that I learned to skate. Joseph Bonaparte had a place down at Bordentown and there was a pond on it. I learned to skate on that pond. That's why I was able to put so many frills on  my figure work, I suppose." If the name Joseph Bonaparte rings a bell, congratulations... you're a loyal Skate Guard reader! Back in 2015, we explored the story of the notoriously haunted skating pond on Bonaparte's Point Breeze estate in one of the blog's Hallowe'en-themed features.

Cook soon became a regular on the ponds of New York City's Central Park and 59th Street in Manhattan and by the late 1850's was widely regarded as one of the finest 'fancy' skaters of the region. By 1863, he was the New York Skating Club's resident meteorologist, the chairman of the club's Artistic Committee and a frequent judge at the Championships Of America. In 1868, he developed a 'programme of movements' for the American Skating Congress... one of the earliest attempts to level the playing field by streamlining the figures performed in 'fancy' skating competitions. Years later, he played yet another important role in figure skating's early history as a founding member of the National Amateur Skating Association of the United States, working alongside George Dawson Phillips.

Cook's talent as a skater was considerable for the era in which he skated. Fred M. Foster, who published the indispensable "Bibliography Of Skating" in March of 1898 called Cook "the authority of skating in America." Various newspaper accounts praise his grapevines, rocking turns and Philadelphia twists. His specialities were a spread eagle from a backward entrance, a one-foot eight with loops added top, bottom and centre and flat-foot spins. He introduced the term 'pivot circling' in what he called the 'Intoto' position on alternating feet, a figure later built upon by Jackson Haines. He told F.M. Teed, "Skating seemed to offer the most enticing exercise. The problems of balance were very attractive, and I amused myself by creating the possibilities of single movements and of difficult combinations. My repertoire of movements was acknowledged to be considerably more extensive than that of any other skater. An unusual flexibility of limbs enabled me to accomplish many feats which remained my own." A modest skater too...

Eminent skating historian Dennis L. Bird recalled how James L. Plimpton, a pioneer in roller skate design, met Cook on the ice at Central Park in New York City. In a 1933 issue of "Skating" magazine he recalled, "He had worked too hard and on the advice of his physician took to outdoor exercise. He could not hold up on the one-bladed skates and envied E.B. Cook who flew about like a bird. They became friends on the ice and Cook laughingly suggested that he ought to invent a skate on which he could hold up at once. It chanced to be a long winter and before its close Plimpton followed Cook's advice and used four small blades similar to miniature old fashioned country sleighs. The principle was exactly the same as the one used for roller-skates: the four blades always remained flat on the ice whilst diverging and converging."

Marvin R. Clark, a skating critic who penned "The Skater's Textbook" with Frank Swift (William H. Bishop), recalled in the late nineteenth century that Cook "gathered together from all sources, all fundamental movements and their developments and combinations, placing them in proper order according to difficulty of execution and proper order of progress for the learner. Mr. Cook gave his system, the result of many years of study and hard work to the world, and it still remains the programme of all skating contests and congresses, as well as the most valuable library of instruction to learner and professional alike, although condensed into one page, letter size." This 'system' of Cook's creation was adopted by the American Skating Congress.


Though Cook remained quite involved in the skating world as a builder in the late nineteenth century, he became almost obsessively devoted to his love of chess. He took up residence on Hudson Street in Hoboken, New Jersey with Mary Kaley, an Irish widow who acted as his housekeeper and companion and curated one of the largest libraries of chess and skating books in the world. To afford his book collection, he supplemented an inheritance from his father by frequently publishing chess problems in literary magazines and penning the books "American Chess-Nuts: Collection Of Problems By Composers Of The Western World" and "The Poetry Of Motion In Skating". In his spare time, he played the violin and collected art.


The great Irving Brokaw, who was one of a small group of men who helped popularize the Continental Style of skating in America, praised him highly. Cook himself was highly critical of the English Style of skating and T. Maxwell Witham in particular, who wrote that few innovations had been made to figure skating since 1880 except for the introduction of rocker and counter grapevines. "He did not know [O.G] Brady, Jenkins and [James B.] Story," bemoaned Cook. "The very different things that one can do at the same time with one's feet is remarkable, and the combinations are very numerous... Our trans-Atlantic brethren seem to put too little value on the two-foot movements."

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

According to Brokaw, Cook last skated on March 17, 1898, but the March 20, 1903 issue of "The Sun" noted that he skated that year at a reunion of 'old-timers' at the St. Nicholas Rink in New York City. An unnamed peer quoted in that article stated, "He is the grandfather of figure skating, and apparently he has got on the same red necktie he used always to wear away back in the 60s. He was gray then, and he is gray now, and barring the fact that he is a little shaky on his pins when he gets on the ice, he does not appear to me to look a day older than he did when I first saw him. Figure skating in New York dates from him. He used to show us all how to do it."

In 1896, George Dawson Phillips remarked, "The man who has probably done more to foster figure skating in this country than any other is Eugene B. Cook, who has been a delegate to all the various conventions where action has been taken upon the formation of programmes, and whose ideas are largely followed to-day by all figure skater. Mr. Cook has been, to my knowledge, a first-class figure skater for thirty-five years, and he is considered practically the father of figure skating in this country." Jackson Haines likely would have had something to say about that proclamation.


Cook was found dead in the bed of his Hudson Street home in Hoboken at the age of eighty-five, on March 13, 1915. His obituary in "The New York Times" mused, "Recently when his house was on fire, Mr. Cook stood at the door of his library and refused to allow the firemen to enter, fearing they would damage his collection of books". Following his death, the contents of that library were donated to Princeton University. Cook Path in the White Mountains was named after him. Chess enthusiasts still revere him as something of a genius over a century later...but most skating fans haven't the foggiest clue who this colourful skating pioneer was.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of "Jackson Haines: The Skating King" and pre-ordering "Sequins, Scandals & Salchows: Figure Skating in the 1980s", which will be released this fall where books are sold: https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.